Last year's devastating hurricanes are hitting Vidalia onions now. The effect is troublesome at the moment, but the potential for Georgia growers is scary.
Vidalia onion planting is behind schedule, says Reid Torrance, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension coordinator in Tattnall County and an area onion agent. Farmers grow more of the sweet, specialty onions in Tattnall County than in any other county in the official growing region.
“We're still planting a few onions,” Torrance said in mid-January. “The primary reason is that so much of our labor force has gone to Florida and Louisiana cleaning up behind hurricanes.”
Labor crews that normally have 40 workers are showing up with 15 or so. “And when heavy rains come through and everything comes to a standstill for a while, we tend to lose more of our labor force,” he says.
A slight shortage of transplants has delayed planting a bit, too. “We really didn't produce the volume of plants that we thought we had,” he says. But the transplants aren't a problem. Many Georgia growers have additional plants grown on contract in Arizona and Texas.
The labor shortage isn't a big problem either — for now. “We don't mind having to plant a few onions in January,” Torrance says. “Some growers are helping their neighbors finish up. We're doing okay.”
The real concern, he says, “is if we have a labor shortage later this spring.” That would be a vastly more serious problem. The Vidalia onion harvest starts in just three months.
“We will not be through cleaning up after hurricanes in three months,” Torrance says. “And with Vidalia onions, when it's time to go, we have to go. We have to get those onions out of the fields and out of the weather.”
Harvested and stored properly, Vidalia onions have a fairly long shelf life for consumers. But for farmers, the window for harvesting and processing the sweet onion crop is small.
“We have tended not to maximize the potential of mechanical harvesting,” Torrance says.
Some onion growers have mechanical harvesters. But for a number of reasons, as long as the labor is here, they prefer to harvest by hand. “Some are looking harder at mechanical harvesting now, though,” he says.
Some growers, he says, contract for laborers through the H-2A program, a process, run by the U.S. Department of Labor, of securing farm workers from other countries. These growers' labor costs more, but the contracts leave them in a good position in a labor-shortage year like this one.
For the moment, the season's Vidalia onion crop is looking good, Torrance says. Growing conditions have been favorable, and most fields have good stands of onions that are growing well. Some fields, however, show signs of two viruses that are relative newcomers to the Georgia crop.
The tomato spotted wilt and iris yellow spot viruses were first detected in Vidalia onions in 2004. Torrance and other UGA Extension agents and scientists are helping growers identify infected plants. So far, the viruses haven't caused any yield or quality losses in Vidalia onions.
“We continue to be concerned about these viruses,” Torrance says, “because they're here and we know how much they've hurt other areas. So far, though, our losses have been minimal. We hope it stays that way.”